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Living space!

This is going to sound very silly to some of you smart guys, but I’ve never been up in the attic crawl space of this house. Reasons are complicated and I’ll probably go into them in some future BHM article. I knew generally what was up there, but until today I’d never even climbed a ladder, stuck my head through the cobwebby little hatch, and flashlighted around.

I didn’t go walkabout up there; just stayed on the ladder. But where I thought I’d find only unappealing but potentially useful storage space, I found this:


That peak is about nine feet up there, guys! And that’s the original main span of the house, so it’s a looooong room. Vertical sidewalls, too, albeit only about three-feet high (that’s the beginnings of cabinets and countertops). My brain dazzled, then got to work on ideas.

The only great big tricky thing: The stairway would have to come up right out of the living room. And that’s tough. A pull-down ladder won’t do because I’m thinking accessible living space, not seldom-visited storage.

Got some stairway ideas, but who knows yet if they’re good ones? Again I’ll keep the details for another time. Mainly I’m writing to say that I am stoked!

Laughing at myself for taking such an absurd long time to make this discovery. But stoked.


  1. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal January 30, 2016 5:02 pm


    I’m always dreaming I suddenly discover an entire wing of my house I never realized was there. Usually behind a door I had overlooked.

    A while back I dreamed I discovered I had an attic (bigger than my house) that was stocked like an antique store with all sorts of old solid wood furniture I could choose from and a huge library. All “run” by a couple of older women who were only too happy to show me the rest of my house. So, you at least took the first step into my dream world.

  2. Claire
    Claire January 30, 2016 5:23 pm

    Oh, wow, Kent. That’s almost scary. Wonderful. But scary. What great attic. 🙂

    And your mention of attic dreams reminds me of something else rather scarily wonderful. Later. I’m going to go put down some notes about that.

  3. Claire
    Claire January 30, 2016 5:24 pm

    Oh, and the elevator would have to work like a dumbwaiter. I could harness the dogs to it and they could hoist it up. Otherwise a bit beyond my budget, I think.

  4. MJR
    MJR January 30, 2016 6:29 pm

    Just a few thoughts… From the photo, your attic has the potential to be a cool art studio, a simple place to get away from all your daily pressures or even a safe hideaway should you have uninvited guests.

    Off the top of my head some things to think about. First you are going to have to figure out the floor boards. Tung and groove over 3/4″ plywood? Then you will have to figure how and how much insulation you are going to want. Depending upon the thickness you may lose hight, length and width so this has to be taken into account. Then you may want to consider light. One rule that I have been told is that all sky lights eventually fail and leak. As for getting up there. everything will have tradeoffs. My thought was a narrow circular staircase. The trade-off will be that getting stuff up there will be a bit of a bother. Another option is an elevator.

    Being the science fiction buff these elevators appeal to me. :^) Relax this is just something too think about and I am sure that others will have far better suggestions. Good luck.

  5. MJR
    MJR January 30, 2016 6:37 pm

    Oh one more thing I forgot is electricity. You may also want to start thinking about where the plugs are going to go as well as wiring for over head lights and a ceiling fan that is if you have enough hight for one. Attics get warm in the summer. Remember one thing when you are up there stay on the joists. If you step off the joist and onto the “floor” you may end up falling through the ceiling and that would be a bad thing.

  6. Beth
    Beth January 30, 2016 6:45 pm

    Here is something close to what I am building into a loft: Alternating-tread stairs…

    Uses little floorspace, but works like regular stairs — no need to climb down backwards as you would on a ladder. Because the treads alternate, they don’t gouge you in the Achilles heel as you walk down. Easy for cats to climb, too. Don’t know about dogs.

    If you search, you’ll probably find examples of people building something similar, often in tiny houses, with storage drawers or shelves included under each tread.

    TXCOMT January 30, 2016 7:42 pm

    Good thoughts here…I’ve got one, too. Whatever you do up there, make sure it meets code; even if you’re in a county (versus an incorporated town, burg, village, whatever) without ’em, try to at least meet national codes. That way, during resale, you can with good conscience advertise the attic space without fear of someone hurting themselves while using it later.

    In other words, no half-horsing it!


  8. LibertyNews
    LibertyNews January 30, 2016 7:46 pm

    Spiral staircase 🙂

  9. LarryArnold
    LarryArnold January 30, 2016 9:22 pm

    When you start considering steeper-than-usual stairs, you might want to remember when you bunged up your ankle.

    And non-standard stairs are hard on resale value.

  10. Mr.shawn
    Mr.shawn January 30, 2016 9:38 pm

    Might try a tight spiral staircase. I’ve been told that vintage spirals from mothballed 747’s are the bee’s knees. Less pricey would be a custom wrought iron spiral. Any competent iron shop could make one. Total footprint could be less that 2′ circumference.
    If skylight failures worry you, a double hung would be pretty easy on the verticle wall.

  11. capn
    capn January 30, 2016 10:15 pm

    Wa-a-ay cool Claire.

    It’s like a whole nother very large room to design and tinker with as it evolves.

    I would think that the spiral stairs would be best for saving space but still be sellable if the need arises.

    My brother turned his attic into the “Master Bedroom” with it’s own half bath and walk in closet.

    Enjoy your new “project”.

  12. Pat
    Pat January 30, 2016 10:18 pm

    You have some good wood up there!

    I agree that a tight circular staircase would be best, but it all depends on what you use the attic for. A 90-degree angle staircase in the corner of the L-R might work also, taking up less eye space, maybe behind/beside the stove if possible – but I don’t know where it would come out in the attic, or how it would fit into the L-R. Got more pictures?

  13. RustyGunner
    RustyGunner January 30, 2016 10:34 pm

    Put a door in the gable end and add an outside stair?

  14. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack January 31, 2016 5:31 am

    Never neglect the structural considerations. From what I can see in the photo, floor loading will be a major consideration.

  15. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 6:17 am

    Wow, I wasn’t expecting so much comment. On a home improvment post. Over a weekend night. This is good.

    I am considering a spiral staircase, but I don’t like them very much. They look cool but the variable-width treads are dangerous (and as LarryA says, I think of my ankle) and you can’t get any large pieces of furniture up them.

    MJR, love that pneumatic elevator. But …

    The alternating tread stair is kind of interesting, and Beth I’d love to see pix of what you do. I’ll look into that some more. But Pat nailed my current thinking — a 90-degree turning staircase in one corner.

    Or even something like this: In any case, probably as “open” a design as possible to minimize the visual space the thing would occupy.

  16. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 6:22 am

    Talk to me more about floors. The good thing about the structure up there is that there’s a wooden floor/ceiling under the beams. So while I’d still be cautious because I don’t know how well it’s attached, it appears that falling through wouldn’t be a problem. Workers have walked between the beams over the years (tramping down the old 1970s blown-in insulation) without mishap.

    The bad is that, as R.L. Wurdack suggests, the existing beams may not be strong enough to serve as future floor joists. The wood is definitely great up there, but those beams appear to be about 3′ on center, which is odd. And how well attached they are is still unknown.

  17. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 6:31 am

    “My brother turned his attic into the “Master Bedroom” with it’s own half bath and walk in closet.”

    That’s kind of what I’m thinking, capn, though a large workshop is also a possibility.

    If it became a bedroom, I could leave the current (still total wreck) bedroom as a workshop/storage room. That would solve several immediate problems. Also upstairs there are two other usable spaces. One is large but so low-ceilinged it can only be for storage. The other is intriguing. It, too, has somewhat lower ceilings, but still has possibilities as a walk-in closet, bathroom, or small library.

    Right now, the few photos I took from the top of the ladder aren’t very good. I’ll have to get up there, walk around, and take better ones. But I want someone with me when I do that. Construction guy, maybe, to advise on those future floor joists.

  18. Pat
    Pat January 31, 2016 7:12 am

    In the former house, you talked of an exit window from the upstairs. It’s not too early to think of that if it’ll be a master bedroom – or any room you’ll be using a lot (or using to get away from the zombies).

  19. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 7:57 am

    “Put a door in the gable end and add an outside stair?”

    Physically possible, but too inconvenient for regular use. Besides, that would tell the world that I’ve Done Something with the upstairs and I’d just as soon avoid letting certain persons know that. 🙂

  20. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 8:00 am

    “get away from the zombies”

    LOL! Catch-22 in the getting-away-from-zombies department: it might be better not to have any windows, since zombies could use them, too. But yes, an exit window from an upstairs room would be among the first orders of business.

  21. Joel
    Joel January 31, 2016 8:54 am

    2″ thick T&G makes great flooring, or you can just lay down 3/4″ OSB and carpeting.

    The best house I ever owned had an attic much like yours. Someone semi-coverted it long before we moved in: narrowed the original dining room with a staircase and a new wall, floored the attic and put up kneewalls. At that time it was fairly common in Michigan tract houses. So, the heavy lifting already having been done, we hired a carpenter to tear out a terrifyingly large chunk of the house’s roof and build a wide dormer. That opened up the space remarkably, and we put a vest-pocket bathroom and dressing area in the dormer and drywalled the whole thing, and had the coolest master bedroom on the block. Kind of hot and stuffy in summer, though.

  22. Bear
    Bear January 31, 2016 9:12 am

    More about floors. That’ll tell you about spacing and span for different sizes and types of wood.

    That three feet spacing is a big problem. I would be astonished to learn that there a building code in the country that would allow that for a floor. For good reason. I’m surprised it’s allowed just for that ceiling, but’s probably grandfathered in.

    Unless you can install more joists, that isn’t safe as living space. Even laying plywood over what’s there, I would not use that for anything but light storage: no books or files, no anvils.

  23. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 10:15 am

    Thanks, Bear. That link is a good reminder. I definitely agree that the room’s going to need more joists.

    My big question about the existing beams is whether they’re secured well enough to function even as a part of a flooring system or whether I should just consider them useless and work around them. Won’t know that until I get up there accompanied by someone who knows what they’re doing.

  24. jed
    jed January 31, 2016 10:19 am

    Well, I’m getting a chuckle, Claire. Is this the same “Cabin Sweet Cabin” Claire of yore? OTOH, I continue to be impressed with all you’re accomplishing there.

    Bear beat me to it, but yeah, 3-foot spacing ain’t kosher. I was going to go looking around at Trus Joist McMillan for info, but then I remembered that their online calculator needs information on loads. Hmmm. Possibly, there’s a default residential load. And, I’m not finding an online calculator anyway. Possibly, I’m imagining that, but IIRC, there used to be one. But then, it’d be for their specific I-joists. But the good thing about I-joists is that they’re engineered, and exact specs for spacing and loading are available.

    What’s more difficult to think about is how you might introduce additional joists. I assume that’s a solved problem, for people in the industry. You also need to consider where the bearing walls are in the house when figuring loading vs. spacing and span.

  25. Bob
    Bob January 31, 2016 10:27 am

    The joists be the problem. I can’t tell what size they are, but the three foot spacing is a no-no, even if only holding up a ceiling.

    If you hung short headers between each end of the joists, and then hung joists between the existing joists, you might have something, depending on the size of the joists. Probably wouldn’t meet code, but if it were my house, and the joists were big enough, and I wanted to use the space bad enough, that’s what I would do.

    Selling it might be a problem. 🙂

  26. Beth
    Beth January 31, 2016 10:30 am

    A stair turning at 90 degrees sounds like a very workable plan (without knowing the exact situation).

    The alternating-tread stair can be a tricky thing re building codes, I think, at least if it’s going to lead up into occupied space. But it has its uses.

    Anyway, how cool that you’ve discovered this unexpected treasure in your house.

  27. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 10:35 am

    jed — This is the same Claire after living 10 full years in small spaces. It was interesting. And 10 years was enough.

    The other thing is that this isn’t solely about finding more living space. It’s that if this space works, it either solves or postpones other problems I was considering how to take on.

    Points well taken about bearing walls and joists. I’m sure adding joists can be done. I’m not sure whether it can be done simply and affordably enough to work for me, but will definitely find out.

  28. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 10:39 am

    “If you hung short headers between each end of the joists …”

    Intriguing thought.

    I didn’t measure anything while I was up there, but just eyeballing, I’d say (corrected after re-checking and measuring) 2 x 6. Not quite true 2 x 6, but closer to it than modern dimensional lumber.

    My big concern is how they’re anchored. Are they actually sitting on the bearing walls and fastened firmly or just loosely stuck in there to hold the ceiling? The beadboard ceiling in the old porch that came down and had to be removed had beams that weren’t fastened to anything except the beadboard itself. They sat lightly on the outer walls but weren’t anchored to them.

  29. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 10:40 am

    “The alternating-tread stair can be a tricky thing re building codes, I think, at least if it’s going to lead up into occupied space. But it has its uses.”

    Yep, I can see how that would be really interesting for a tiny house, a loft, a storage attic, etc. Not for me because it’s too steep and tricky for a high-use area. But I’m glad to know about it. It’s clever.

  30. jed
    jed January 31, 2016 10:46 am

    If you hung short headers between each end of the joists, and then hung joists between the existing joists, you might have something

    It looks like above the joists, there’s exterior wall, so I’m thinking the top plate might be accessible. That’d make things easier.

    I’m also pondering how one would actuall get joists up in there, without letting people know you’re doing something.

    Well, here’s some info about I-joists.

  31. Bob
    Bob January 31, 2016 11:19 am

    My opinion of alternating stairs is that they are not only a good way to break your ankle (again), they are a good way to break your neck. Not too bad if you use them like a ladder, but coming down like a stair is not for the faint of heart.

  32. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 11:23 am

    “I’m also pondering how one would actuall get joists up in there, without letting people know you’re doing something.”

    Oh, everybody — including the tax assessor, all the guys at the lumberyard, every neighbor, and all the readers of BHM — know I’m “doing something” and will be for years. But there’s no particular reason some of those folks would have to know if I were adding livable floor space without expanding the house’s footprint. Not that I am. It’s just dreaming, so far.

  33. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 11:51 am


    First update: I am a dimwit. I said the spacing of the beams looked non-standard. There is a section where the spacing of the beams is 3′ on center, but it’s in one of the areas suitable only for storage. The main section is standard 2-foot spacing, as I’d have realized if I just counted the number of beams in the 24-foot room. Sigh. This time I measured.

    Also, the beams are 1-3/4 x 5-3/4 — so neither true dimensional nor as skimpy as modern 2 x 6s. And on the side I’m able to see, they do sit on what were the original exterior walls and they are anchored firmly to the uprights next to them.

    As I noted earlier, there is wood under the beams, but I can’t tell how thick it is. I stuck a knife blade in the cracks between boards and it went in only 1/8″ — though whether that’s because the boards are very thin, because they’re tongue-and-groove, or because the cracks are filled with crud, I don’t know. The wood is thick enough that many people have walked on it over the years is all I know. There’s drywall below it so I can’t get a look at it from the bottom.

  34. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 11:56 am

    “a good way to break your neck”

    I found some photos online that show different designs of alternating-tread stairs. One showed the view from the top of one of the staircases.

    That was all I needed to see. OMG. Still a clever way to go if space is limited and you have more guts than I do.

  35. Pat
    Pat January 31, 2016 12:11 pm

    Sounds like the attic may have been built later; it seems pretty solid. The house might have been a ranch-style originally. Oh… but you said it had been built on, so maybe it was built up as well.

  36. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 12:27 pm

    “hired a carpenter to tear out a terrifyingly large chunk of the house’s roof and build a wide dormer”

    Sounds cool, Joel. I would love to have a dormer with a nice, big window, or even just no dormer but a couple of opening skylights. Ventilation, definitely. Doesn’t get as hot and stuffy here as it probably does in Detroit in summer, but I had an attic bedroom in the flatlands house, and yes, there were days …

    This might have enough height for a ceiling fan. Again, won’t know until I measure and after my earlier bad guesstimates, I’m not making any more assumptions.

  37. Claire
    Claire January 31, 2016 12:27 pm

    BTW, 2″ T&G, Joel??? What, you were rich? I’ve never seen 2″ T&G to my knowledge. Well, a couple of times in old houses. I see it’s still sold. But whoof.

  38. jed
    jed January 31, 2016 1:15 pm

    Ah, T&G subfloor. 1st house construction I worked on, that’s what the builder was using. More modern stuff was available, be he was a retired lumberjack, and did things “old school”. You can still find 2×6 T&G planks – seems to be targeted at log homes and decks. On that house, I think it was 2×10 or 2×12 we were using. Yes, that was many years ago. Woof, that was hard work, putting that stuff in place.

  39. A.G.
    A.G. January 31, 2016 7:34 pm

    Perhaps the house was in such a disarray that you were overwhelmed, but I’m still pretty surprised you didn’t stick your noggin up there on day two or three of ownership. There could have been treasure up there!! 🙂


    May I suggest thinking about the future a bit more heavily when considering uses for your new found space? Meaning, use it for storage or more mundane things that may become less important as climbing stairs becomes more of a chore in the decades to come. 2c.

  40. Claire
    Claire February 1, 2016 5:06 am

    That is a good point, A.G., and one I’ve considered. My position is that until I’m actually old and feeble I’m not going to set up to live as though I am. But I’m also not in denial about the prospect. That room could be a bedroom while the first-floor bedroom serves as storage … then if stairs eventually became an obstacle, the rooms could switch purposes.

    That said, I know an 87-year-old woman who just moved into a townhouse and put her bedroom upstairs, despite there being a perfectly handy bedroom downstairs. She walks with a cane, can’t drive, and on her doctor’s advice goes laboriously backwards down those stairs (something to do with her artificial hip or knee). But by God, she still goes up and down that staircase every day.

  41. A.G.
    A.G. February 1, 2016 10:15 am

    “My position is that until I’m actually old and feeble I’m not going to set up to live as though I am.”

    I like you, kid.

  42. ILTim
    ILTim February 2, 2016 8:16 am

    Big furniture comes in the windows, make sure the window you add will come out and fit a queen box spring. I lived in a house with a finished attic like that and a TINY staircase which many people fell down. Moving out, I just cut the box spring in half and tossed the pieces out the window onto the front lawn. It had been such an ordeal getting it in, compressed with ratchet straps, people on the porch roof pushing, etc…

    I’ve seen LOOOOONG deep drawers going under the sloped ceilings, love that idea for one side. The other side can have a little troll door and be finished or unfinished storage.

    Perhaps too extravagant, but atrium style ganged skylights at the peak would make that space incredibly light and airy. Basic non-opening name brand (Velux) skylights are only $100-200 each, installation is another matter entirely.

  43. Claire
    Claire February 2, 2016 10:34 am

    “I’ve seen LOOOOONG deep drawers going under the sloped ceilings, love that idea for one side.”

    I love that idea, too! And those long drawers are great for things like art papers and tools.

    And yeah, the atrium-style skylights are a sublime dream. Oh man, that would be glorious! But one or two skylights would be a fantastic practical reality.

    And you’ve just given me more reason to keep spiral stairs low on the list of options.

  44. Felinenation
    Felinenation February 2, 2016 12:55 pm

    Kent: Wow, I have had those dreams too, where I find a whole new wing of the house. Or, I go into my crawlspace (which I actually have), and it turns into a large full basement with lots of cool tools and machinery.

    Claire: I read your third installment in Backwoods Home, where you said there is plywood covering the interior walls, and you plan to remove it some day. If it were my house (and I know, it’s not) I would leave the plywood. I think it is strengthening the structure, and provides additional insulation and sound deadening.

  45. Claire
    Claire February 2, 2016 1:20 pm

    Definitely strange on the similar dreams.

    On the plywood on the walls … good point. Where I’m leaving the existing wall structures intact, I usually will leave the plywood. Maybe cover it with something more attractive, but leave it there.

    There are several reasons I’ll remove parts of it. The first is if I take out the whole wall (which in a couple of places, I am). The second is if I think the plywood is hiding much cooler wood walls underneath (which in a couple of places, it is). The third is if the plywood shows signs of delamination (which in some formerly leaky places, it has).

  46. Pat
    Pat February 2, 2016 1:22 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the 90° stairs. Claire, you could build a tabletop/desk under the long stairs and still maintain some openness, with shelves/storage under the short stairs if they’re next to the wall. That would give you both an illusion of openness and an extra work space.

  47. emdfl
    emdfl February 6, 2016 10:21 am

    When you’re deciding on the type/size of your stairs, keep in mind the size of the items you may be wanting to take up there. Then add a foot to the stair width, heh, heh. A friend did something like that to his place and did the landing half way up type of staircase. Looked really nice and didn’t take up all that much room.

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